First generation products are usually born from ambition, fueled by a clear goal: to disrupt the status quo. These products make it a point to show just how wrong some things in any given industry are, and present a different way forward for those who do not wish to conform.
Much like the original Mac did to desktop computing and the iPhone did to the phone industry, mirrorless cameras have been disrupting the photography industry for a few years now. What started as a harmless enough proposition for less-than-serious photographers is becoming increasingly uncomfortable to watch for traditional DSLR manufacturers.
The original Sony Alpha α7, introduced in late 2013, was the first Full Frame mirrorless camera to seriously challenge professional-grade DSLRs in terms of image quality and features. Other than Leica M cameras, there was no other Full Frame mirrorless camera in the market back then, a fact that largely gave DSLR giants Canon and Nikon permission to dismiss their mirrorless competition as little more than amateur hour.
With the release of the α7, together with the high-resolution α7R, things were not looking so harmless anymore. These were professional-oriented cameras that offered similar image quality and a whole host of new features that were either rare or completely absent from DSLRs, like built-in WiFi, NFC, focus peaking, magnification, electronic viewfinders that could compensate for ambient lighting conditions, and many others, all in remarkably light and compact bodies that were much easier to carry.
All of a sudden, amateur hour was effectively over.
The first generation α7 was an ambitious product that got many things right, and its commercial success points to a greater truth: the number of people who need a traditional DSLR to get the job done is shrinking by the day. Mirrorless technology is here to stay.
However, like most 1.0 products, the original α7-series cameras were ambitious but not terribly polished, and had quite a few issues that affected the overall user experience in a negative way. The lack of in-body image stabilization (IBIS), the relatively poor autofocus performance, and certain shutter shock problems with the α7R, to name just a few, clearly showed there was ample room for improvement here. If Sony was really aiming at Canon and Nikon, they sure had their work cut out for them.
Flash forward to 2015, a mere two years later, and Sony has released not one, but four new Full Frame cameras in the α7 series. By comparison, both of Canon’s current mainstream professional camera bodies were released in 2012, a full year before the original α7 even existed. Clearly, Sony’s been busy.
The Sony Alpha α7 Mark II camera — α7 II henceforth — is the first of Sony’s second-generation α7 camera bodies. It was announced in November 2014, just a year after the original α7, and like most 2.0 products, it is an evolutionary step up that aims to right the α7’s wrongs and for the most part, manages to do so brilliantly.
The α7 II’s headlining features are an improved, beefier body with a more substantial grip, the world’s first 5-axis IBIS in a Full Frame camera, faster autofocus performance and, since the 2.0 firmware update released in November 2015, the possibility to select 14-bit uncompressed RAW files and to use phase-detection autofocus with adapted lenses.
These features are a substantial improvement over the original α7, and make the α7 II an even stronger competitor against traditional DSLRs from Canon and Nikon, not to mention the rest of the mirrorless industry.
Let’s take a closer look at everything it has to offer.
The Sony α7 II’s build quality is greatly improved over its predecessor. It has a magnesium alloy body that feels very solid in the hand while remaining light, and the bigger grip makes it much more comfortable to handle than the original α7.
The body has a matte finish that looks definitely high-end, and gives the camera an understated look. This is a camera that doesn’t immediately scream “professional photographer”, meaning it’s a lot easier to be inconspicuous with it when the need arises, something street photographers are bound to appreciate.
The camera is also weather sealed, and is rated as “moisture and dust resistant” by Sony. While it may not have the bulletproof ruggedness of traditional DSLRs, it’s more than enough to cope with the occasional drizzle. You shouldn’t worry about using it every day, but it clearly wasn’t designed to be a war-zone camera, so be sure to keep that in mind.
The lens mount is another area that has been considerably improved in this second-generation body. First-generation α7 cameras had a different, weaker mount and on rare occasions, it could lead to light leakage and even accidental lens releases. That was a huge and potentially very expensive issue, and it’s good to see that Sony finally got the mount right this time around.
With the new, sturdier mount, there appear to be no such problems in the α7 II, and there’s hardly any play between a mounted lens and the camera body. Simply put, there’s no reason to be concerned about the lens mount anymore.
Overall, the α7 II’s build quality is top notch, although there are still some areas that could use an improvement. Perhaps the most obvious one is the memory card door, which is made of plastic and wiggles quite a bit, even when properly closed.
Another area that could use some rethinking is the eyecup. It’s not that it’s bad, or uncomfortable, but it’s an absolute magnet for dust particles. Seriously, it’s incredibly hard to keep that rubber-like material clean.
Other than these minor issues, though, the α7 II’s build quality remains top notch.
The α7 II has a 3-inch tilting LCD with over 1.2 million pixels. It provides enough resolution to accurately compose or review images, but it’s nothing to write home about, especially when compared with today’s high-resolution smartphone displays.
Brightness is also adequate for indoor use, although out in full sunlight it’s quite difficult to see anything clearly. For those situations, it’s always better to use the electronic viewfinder instead.
The screen tilts in order to make it easier to compose waist-level or overhead shots which, shockingly, is something most professional DSLRs today still don’t offer. It doesn’t swivel for selfies or video, though.
Perhaps the biggest omission in the LCD is the fact that it’s not a touchscreen. Mirrorless cameras from Olympus and Panasonic do have touchscreens, and they make a huge difference in actual use. Things like instantly selecting your focus point by touching the screen, or swiping to navigate your pictures in Playback mode, are made much better by the use of touch technology, and it’s a shame Sony still hasn’t decided to get onboard with that.
Not being a touchscreen, the α7 II’s LCD doesn’t have any sort of oleophobic coating to minimize fingerprints. As a result, the screen can get very dirty, very quickly. If you can’t stand dirty screens, you should probably remember to carry a microfiber cloth to wipe it clean every now and then.
Finally, another issue with the LCD is its high reflectivity. The screen reflects a whole lot of light, and this can be distracting sometimes.
The α7 II has a 0.5-inch electronic viewfinder with over 2.3 million pixels that makes it a breeze to compose your images. It’s crystal clear and super bright, and it offers 100% coverage.
With a magnification of 0.71x, looking through the viewfinder is always a pleasant experience, no matter the lighting conditions. The refresh rate is also excellent, with everything moving smoothly and without any sort of artifacts.
The built-in diopter-adjustment dial allows you to optimize the viewfinder to your particular eyesight prescription. You can adjust it from –4.0 m–1 to +3.0 m–1. This dial is located on the base of the EVF itself.
All in all, this is a great EVF. Simply put, there’s nothing to complain about here.
The camera features two sections on the left side where the media connectors are located. Both of these sections are protected by plastic covers that peel away to reveal the connectors.
The smaller section to the right has a micro-USB connector which is used to tether the camera to a computer and to charge the battery via the supplied USB charger. It also has an HDMI port that allows you to connect the camera to an external display.
The bigger section to the left houses standard headphone and microphone plugs, making it easy to connect your peripherals for video recording.
These connectors are all well placed and easy to access, although the flimsy plastic covers are awkward sometimes, as they are left hanging whenever the connectors are in use.
The α7 II uses one standard SD card to store data, and it’s located on the right side, near the base. Obviously, given the high data rate this camera is capable of, we recommend going with a fast Class-10 SD card to minimize waiting times.
Unfortunately, the α7 II only has one card slot, so there’s no redundant storage. If you need to have an in-body backup of your pictures, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Ergonomics and Controls
The Sony α7 II has very good ergonomics thanks to its improved grip and sturdier body, although it’s best suited for people with small-ish hands. This slightly heavier body is better balanced with bigger lenses than the original α7, and it’s also more comfortable to hold in the hand while remaining small and light enough to be significantly more portable than comparable DSLRs.
The grip is covered by a textured rubber-like material — you could even say it’s faux-leather — that’s great to touch and provides a nice, reassuring feel. However, if you have big hands the entire camera body may be a bit cramped for you. The main problem is that the body is not tall enough to accommodate the entire palm of your hand, which means your pinkie will be left hanging in the air, with nowhere to rest on. Had Sony made the camera slightly taller while maintaining its width and depth, the result would have probably been a bit more comfortable.
Luckily, there are a number of 3rd-party add-on grips you can install in order to fine-tune the camera to your preferred size. And if you need even more of a grip, Sony’s own vertical battery grip is also a fantastic, albeit pricey, choice.
As for controls, the α7 II features plenty of dedicated dials and buttons for every feature, although, as we’re about to see, it’s not without its quirks.
The mode dial is located on the top plate, to the right of the electronic viewfinder. It allows you to choose between the usual shooting modes, including aperture and shutter priority, as well as full auto and full manual modes. It also allows you to save up to two camera settings, or select the Scene, Panorama and Movie modes. In this regard, the α7 II provides all the necessary modes for the vast majority of shooters, regardless of their level of expertise.
Moving over to the exposure controls, the α7 II has two main dials. When shooting in aperture or shutter priority modes, both dials control your primary parameter, while the exposure compensation dial allows you to change the secondary one. In manual mode, the front dial controls the aperture and the back dial controls the shutter speed. Both dials are, of course, entirely customizable, so you can set them up to your preferred behavior.
The dedicated exposure compensation dial allows you to dial in +/- 3 full stops of compensation in 1/3rd of a stop increments. This comes in really handy when you’re dealing with complex scenes, where the camera’s light meter may have a hard time getting the exposure right.
The shutter release button has been moved to the top of the front dial, and is now more exposed than in the original α7, making it easier and more comfortable to press. This shutter button is different from the majority of cameras out there, though, because it’s a soft shutter. That means there’s not a hard stop mid-way to indicate the threshold between the focusing action and the actual shutter release. Instead, it’s a continuous press all the way.
This takes some getting used to, but in practice it’s actually an improvement, because it greatly reduces camera shake when releasing the shutter, which allows you to use slightly slower shutter speeds without getting blurry shots. Once you get used to this type of shutter button, it’s hard to go back.
The on-off switch is located around the shutter release button. This placement is ideal for quickly turning the camera on and off without even looking, and lets you simply raise the camera to your eye and shoot whenever the opportunity presents itself.
The top plate also features two customizable buttons next to the shutter release. By default, the C1 button allows you to select your white balance, while the C2 button allows you to change your focus region between Wide/Zone/Center/Flexible Spot/Lock-on AF. Both of these buttons trigger focus magnification when shooting in MF mode.
The C3 button is located on the upper back side of the camera, to the right of the viewfinder, and allows you to select your focus mode between Single-shot AF/Continuous AF/DMF/Manual Focus. When you’re in Playback mode, this button allows you to zoom-in on your pictures.
Additionally, there’s a C4 button on the bottom right side of the camera that is not configured by default, and acts as the Delete button when you’re in Playback mode.
All four customizable buttons can be configured to control nearly every function in the α7 II, with just a few exceptions. You can’t, for example, assign one of these to manually switch between the LCD display and the electronic viewfinder.
This is a problem, because the automatic switch is controlled by a sensor that is extremely sensitive, meaning the LCD often switches off when you’re trying to compose a waist-level shot and you place the camera a bit close to your own body. Sony really should address this in a future firmware update by either lowering the sensitivity of the sensor, or allowing users to manually switch between the LCD and the EVF.
On the back plate itself, there are several buttons and controls that act as shortcuts to frequently used features.
On the upper region there’s a switch-and-hold button that can be used to activate two different functions. By default, this switch toggles between manual focus and exposure lock, with each feature being activated by pressing and holding the button on top of the switch. This works great to fine-tune focus when the AF system misses, for example.
Below that button there’s a Function (Fn) button that gives you access to the Quick Navi screen. This screen allows you to quickly change settings without needing to dive into the complex menu system. While in Playback mode, pressing this button switches over to the “Send to Smartphone” screen, which is incredibly useful and saves a ton of time when you want to transfer images to your phone.
The control wheel is placed below the Fn button, and allows you to navigate the menu system and select your focus region as well as your focus point. You can turn this wheel, but you can also click up/down/left/right on it as well as the center, just like on Apple’s classic iPod clickwheel, for example. The four arrow buttons also serve as direct accesses to several features: the Up arrow cycles along the different display modes, the Right arrow sets the ISO, and the Left arrow sets the burst mode.
Unlike the clickwheel, however, the one in the α7 II is extremely sensitive, and it’s quite difficult to avoid accidental presses when simply trying to turn it, especially when you’re busy looking through the EVF. Unfortunately, this makes selecting the appropriate focus settings quite cumbersome. This wheel could really use some attention from Sony, because it’s by far the most annoying point of friction when operating the camera.
Below the control wheel, there’s the Playback and Delete buttons, both of which do exactly what it looks like they do. As mentioned before, the Delete button doubles as a fourth customizable button, although it’s not configured by default.
The infamous Movie recording button is located below the exposure compensation dial, and to the right side of the camera, immediately above the memory card door. Many people find this placement frustrating, and Sony finally decided to give users the option to map this function to another button with the recently released 2.0 firmware update. Better late than never.
Finally, to the left of the EVF, there’s the Menu button which, as the name implies, gives you access to the menu system of the α7 II.
The α7 II’s bottom plate is very clean, featuring a standard tripod mount in the center, and the spring-loaded battery door immediately below the grip.
The battery compartment can be accessed even when the camera is mounted on most tripods, meaning you can swap batteries without needing to alter your setup.
The Sony α7-series cameras are often criticized for their overly complex menu system. Indeed, this system is nowhere near as intuitive as in other manufacturer’s cameras, but it’s still reasonable enough to not be a deal breaker for most people.
When you think about it, menu systems are supposed to give you access to every setting there is, and the Sony menu system does that in spades. You can customize pretty much anything you can think of with these cameras, which is in part why some purists don’t like them very much.
One of the most frequent tropes directed at Sony is that they make computers that take pictures, as opposed to making cameras. It’s hard to argue against that after taking a look at the menu system, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Having so many options right at your fingertips ensures you have plenty of room to grow with your camera. As you become more skillful at certain technical aspects of photography, you’ll be able to play with these advanced settings and fine-tune your camera to behave in the bet possible way for the type of photography that you do.
If you find yourself a bit overwhelmed by the initial complexity of the system, make it a point to use the Quick Navi screen as much as possible. This will give you access to the most used settings in a straightforward enough manner, and you can leave the rest of the menu system as-is until you feel comfortable diving into it. The default configuration is good enough that you probably won’t need to change much about the camera anyway, so don’t worry too much about it.
That being said, if you’re a purist at heart and want a simple camera with only the essential controls, you may want to look elsewhere.
The PlayMemories store and the PlayMemories Mobile app
Another unique aspect of Sony’s E-mount cameras is their PlayMemories app store. This allows users to download apps to their camera that provide additional features, like time-lapse, light-painting, advanced bracketing, and so on. Some of these apps, like the Smart Remote Control, are free, but most cost between $4.99 and $9.99.
On one hand, it’s good that Sony is offering some aftermarket ways to enhance the feature set of their cameras. On the other hand, though, some of these apps are features that should have been included in the camera to begin with, so it’s hard to stomach paying $9.99 for something like time-lapse, which many other, much cheaper cameras can do at no extra cost.
The α7 II has both WiFi and NFC, which enable it to easily connect to a smartphone, or even to a WiFi hotspot, in order to access the PlayMemories store to download features and apps.
Besides the PlayMemories store, there’s also the confusingly named PlayMemories Mobile app, available for Android and iOS. This app gives you access to some of the PlayMemories features, like the Smart Remote Control. It also allows you to transfer pictures from the camera to your smartphone.
In iOS, the pairing occurs at the OS level, but first you need to initiate the connection from the camera. You can do so by selecting the “Smart Remote Control” or the “Send to Smartphone” options from the menu system, both of which will trigger the connection process. The α7 II creates a WiFi network that you connect your iPhone to, and once the connection is established, it’s only a matter of launching the app.
In Android, the connection process is much more streamlined: you simply place the phone next to the camera in a way that the NFC markings on both devices are facing each other, and let the NFC protocol do its thing.
Once inside the app, you can get straight to work. Since you initiated the feature request from the camera, the app automatically does what you asked for upon launch. If you selected the Smart Remote Control feature, you get the remote function immediately after launching the app. If, on the other hand, you requested an image transfer, you’ll get a copy dialog and a confirmation message once the file has been transferred.
The 4.0 version of the Smart Remote Control app allows you to, um, control nearly every aspect of your exposures, including aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus mode, focus point, etc. Some of these parameters have direct on-screen shortcuts, while the rest can be configured in the settings screen of the app.
Another great feature of the app is that you can simply touch anywhere on the screen to select your focus point, something that, ironically, you can’t do on the α7 II itself.
The remote control app is usable and reliable, and will allow you to do what it says on the tin. The connection process is a bit cumbersome initially, but once you’ve set it up it’s easy and quick enough to not be tedious.
Another great aspect of the remote is that you can use your smartphone as remote storage. That way you can keep shooting even if you don’t have an SD card in the camera, or if the SD card is full. The way it works is by automatically transferring images to your phone right after they’re taken, which has the added benefit of streamlining the process nicely.
At the end of the day, the PlayMemories Mobile app is by no means a great app, but it’s good enough.
Sensor and Image Quality
One thing that wasn’t upgraded from the original Sony α7 is the imaging sensor. The α7 II features the same 24.2-Megapixel CMOS Sony-made sensor as the α7. It also features the same BIONZ X image processor. In practice, this means the α7 II offers virtually identical image quality as the original α7 — which is to say, pretty darn good.
This may be a disappointment for some, but keep in mind that when the α7 II was announced, the original α7 was barely one year old. For reference, Canon hasn’t updated the 5D or 6D cameras since they were introduced in 2012.
However, even though we’re nearing the end of 2015, and while other cameras offer higher-resolution sensors, 24 Megapixels is still a perfectly adequate spec for all but the most demanding professional jobs. Unless you’re planning to print your images at billboard sizes and up, you’ll be absolutely fine with the α7 II’s resolution. Higher-resolution cameras are niche products aimed at professionals with very specific needs: if you actually need all those extra pixels, chances are you already know.
As for image quality, the Sony α7 II offers Full Frame image quality with no asterisks, meaning there’s plenty of dynamic range and very good high-ISO performance to be had.
For comparison’s sake, the α7 II’s image quality is roughly in line with that of the similarly priced Nikon D750 or Canon EOS 6D. It may lag slightly behind those in some aspects and inch ahead in others, but overall there’s not much to separate them.
This performance cements the α7 II’s status as a solid Full Frame camera for professionals and enthusiasts alike.
One of the aspects that has seen great improvement in the α7 II is the autofocus system, which Sony claims is up to 40% faster than the original α7. In practice, what this means is that AF is generally snappy in good light with nearly all native FE lenses. Accuracy is also excellent in good light, making it a very reliable camera in everyday, real-world use.
Tracking is also acceptable, although the α7 II won’t set any records in this department. This is definitely not an action camera, but it’s more than capable of handling most everyday scenes just fine.
In dimmer lighting conditions, though, AF may be slightly slower, with the camera hunting a fair bit for focus. Tracking accuracy also decreases significantly in poor lighting conditions. This performance is similar to other mirrorless cameras in the market, and it’s due to the inherent limitations of the contrast-detection autofocus algorithms these cameras use.
The α7 II has a nice trick up its sleeve, though, in the form of 117 on-sensor phase-detection autofocus (PDAF) points. These points were used by the α7 II to assist the contrast-detection AF system when needed, like when tracking subjects, for example. As of the 2.0 firmware update released by Sony on November 17, 2015, these points now allow the α7 II to also use PDAF with adapted lenses, which gives a huge boost to the camera’s value and versatility.
PDAF usually performs significantly better than the regular contrast-detection autofocus most mirrorless cameras use, and allows the α7 II to use Sony A-mount lenses as well as 3rd-party DSLR lenses with near native performance. If you’re a DSLR user and have a big collection of Canon L lenses, for example, you can now bring them right over with you to the α7 II and chances are, they’ll perform almost as good as they did on a native Canon body.
One downside to using PDAF on the α7 II is that the phase-detection points are all located on the central area of the sensor. This isn’t too different from traditional DSLRs, though, so most DSLR users should feel right at home.
Besides the usual single-scene autofocus and continuous autofocus modes, the camera also has a DMF mode that allows for instant manual focus override. That’s very useful in poor lighting conditions, as it allows you to achieve general focus with the AF, then turn the focus ring to achieve critical focus instantly and easily.
Manual focusing is an area where mirrorless cameras run laps around DSLRs. Electronic viewfinders allow mirrorless cameras to use several MF aids in order to help the user nail focus every time, making the entire process remarkably easy.
The α7 II features several of those aids, including focus peaking and magnification. Both features can be configured to engage automatically when turning the focus ring on native FE lenses, which is super convenient. If you’re using older manual lenses with no electrical contacts, you can still assign these functions to any of the customizable buttons. This is not as convenient, but still miles ahead of using these lenses on traditional DSLRs.
By default, you can press either C1 or C2 to activate focus magnification on the α7 II while in MF mode. Press the button once and you get a small highlighted rectangle you can move around the frame using the control wheel. Once the highlighted area is where you want it, press the button again to zoom in on that area. Press it once more and you zoom in even further. Pressing the shutter release will disengage magnification and allow you to take the picture.
As for focus peaking, you can adjust the peaking level (High/Mid/Low/Off) and color (Red/Yellow/White) on the camera’s menu system to fine-tune it to your preferred behavior. Be aware that the higher you go, the less accurate peaking becomes. Conversely, the lower you go, the more unforgiving focusing is, so you may need to use magnification together with peaking to achieve critical focus. Generally speaking, the Mid setting usually offers the best compromise between accuracy and ease of use.
Both of these features make the α7 II a breeze to use with manual lenses, native or adapted. If you enjoy the slower MF experience, or want to use MF for video recording, you’ll love that about the α7 II.
In-Body Image Stabilization
One of the hallmark features of the α7 II camera is the use of 5-axis In-Body Image Stabilization (IBIS) that corrects for pitch, yaw and roll, as well as shift in the X and Y directions. This was the first Full Frame IBIS system in the world, and still today the only other Full Frame cameras that feature IBIS are Sony’s own α7R II and α7S II.
Stabilizing a Full Frame sensor is no easy task, but Sony appears to have done a pretty good job of it with the α7 II. Sony claims up to 4.5 stops of stabilization with the system, but this is somewhat optimistic in real-world use. 2-3 stops are easily achievable though, especially with good technique.
IBIS performance may not be as good on the α7 II as it is on some of Olympus’s Micro Four Thirds cameras, but that’s understandable. Stabilizing a MFT sensor is a far easier task, and Olympus has several years of experience designing those systems. For a first take, however, Sony’s IBIS implementation is no slouch.
The way IBIS works on the α7 II is by talking to the lens and fine-tuning the system to the focal length that’s being used. With native FE lenses, this communication happens automatically, even with zoom lenses, where focal length can vary across shots. For lenses that already have Optical SteadyShot (OSS) built in, both the lens’s and the camera’s stabilization systems will work together to obtain the best possible performance.
However, one of the great aspects of the α7 II’s IBIS is that it works with all lenses, not just native FE lenses. There’s an option in the camera’s menu system where the user can introduce the focal length of the lens, meaning you can use it with adapted lenses, even old manual ones. That’s incredibly useful.
Best of all, IBIS works for video too, which makes it very easy to shoot high-quality videos without the need for cumbersome external stabilizing rigs.
No matter how you slice it, IBIS is one of the best features of the α7 II, and probably the feature that separates it the most from DSLRs in terms of actual functionality.
While it doesn’t offer internal 4K video recording — something both the α7R II and α7S II can do — the α7 II is capable of pretty clean 1080p footage at up to 50 Mbps / 60 fps. That’s good enough for most applications, especially online. 4K video may be the future, but in the present — you know, where we actually live — it’s still very much a nice-to-have feature for most people, not a must-have.
Video formats supported by the α7 II include XAVC S (up to 50 Mbps), AVCHD (up to 28 Mbps), and MP4 (up to 12 Mbps).
One aspect about Sony cameras in general is that, depending on where you bought yours, it may be a 50i-capable or 60i-capable device. Depending on which one it is, it’ll record video at 50 or 60 frames per second, respectively. This is in order to be compatible with the PAL/NTSC video standards that are used in different regions around the world. Obviously, you should have gotten the camera that matches your own region: 60i (NTSC) in most of America, and 50i (PAL) almost everywhere else.
The only practical difference between the two models is that 50i cameras have a menu item that allows you to switch between PAL and NTSC modes, meaning they’re actually compatible with both systems, whereas 60i cameras are NTSC-only. Obviously, given the choice to buy one or the other, the most versatile choice would be to go with the PAL version, even if you live in an NTSC region. In practice, though, this isn’t something you need to be concerned about, unless you’re planning to buy your camera in the gray market, or while away on an international trip.
All in all, the α7 II is a perfectly decent video camera, but it remains a stills camera at heart. If you’re primarily a video shooter, then you’ll probably be better served by the α7S-series cameras, both of which are much better at video.
After the recently released 2.0 firmware update, the α7 II now supports 14-bit uncompressed RAW files in addition to the previous 12-bit compressed ones.
The lack of uncompressed RAW files on the α7-series cameras had been a frequent source of criticism for Sony, until they announced full 14-bit uncompressed RAW support when they released the α7S II camera a couple months ago. Since then, the same feature has made its way into the α7R II, the RX1R II and now the α7 II via firmware updates.
However, in the end it certainly looks like this was much ado about nothing. In real-world shooting, uncompressed RAW files offer nearly identical image quality as the old compressed files. Only in extreme cases, like when adjusting exposure by a full five stops in post production, are you likely to notice any differences between the two types of file.
Still, if there were no penalties to using uncompressed RAW files, enabling the feature would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly true.
The α7 II’s uncompressed RAW files weigh approximately 49 MB each, roughly double the size of the 24 MB compressed files. In practice, this means everything about using the camera becomes twice as slow, including buffer clearing times and buffer depths, two of the most important aspects to a camera’s user experience.
Indeed, using the α7 II with uncompressed RAW feels much like using an older computer that’s struggling to keep up with its workload all the time. If there were massive gains in image quality to be had, it might have been worth it. As it is, though, it’s hard to understand why anybody would want to enable the feature.
This is not to bash on Sony, mind you. Quite the contrary, in fact: if anything, their RAW compression algorithm has proven to be worthy of praise, which kind of makes you wonder if there’s a legitimate reason to keep using uncompressed RAW files at all in the industry.
Performance and Battery Life
The α7 II can shoot up to 5 frames per second in burst mode, which is good enough to capture any moment in everyday scenes. If you’re a sports shooter or require a higher burst rate, though, this may not be the best camera for you.
One thing to point out is that continuous AF is available during burst mode. This definitely helps get more in-focus shots when tracking subjects.
The buffer is good for 52 shots in Extra Fine JPEG mode, 28 shots in compressed RAW mode and 24 in compressed RAW + Fine JPEG mode. These are excellent values all around, so buffer depth is not a concern with this camera. However, if you’re shooting in uncompressed RAW mode after the 2.0 firmware update, you may find the 14-shot buffer depth a bit limiting in everyday use.
The time it takes the camera to write those shots to the card is a different matter, unfortunately. Using a Class 10 Samsung 64GB Pro SDXC card, it takes the camera well over 10 seconds to clear the RAW buffer, and over half a minute to clear the JPEG buffer. This may be reasonable given the generous buffer depths, but it’s still occasionally annoying.
While the camera is busy clearing the buffers, you get a red warning light on the bottom right part of the back panel, indicating you cannot preview images in Playback mode. If you attempt to, you get an error message on the LCD prompting you to wait until the buffer is completely cleared. Surprisingly, though, you can still fire additional shots, which are simply queued up in the buffer.
Overall, the α7 II’s performance is pretty good for normal use, although if you do a ton of burst shooting, there are faster options out there.
As for battery life, the α7 II uses standard NP-FW50 batteries. This is a very popular battery, used by nearly all E-mount cameras, and you can buy original Sony batteries or cheaper 3rd-party ones.
The α7 II is rated for up to 340 shots when using the LCD and up to 270 shots when using the EVF. This is explained by the higher refresh rate of the EVF compared to the LCD. These figures are right in line with most mirrorless cameras, but they fall well short of comparable DSLRs. For instance, the Nikon D750’s battery is rated for over 1,000 shots.
In practice, though, battery life is good enough to last a full day of casual shooting, although if you plan on doing something more intensive, you should definitely bring at least an extra battery. Logically, the more you use power-hungry features like the EVF or video recording, the shorter your battery life will be.
One problem with the included USB charger is that it doesn’t let you charge a spare battery while you’re using the camera. If you use multiple batteries — and you really, really should — we recommend buying an external charger.
Finally, if you don’t want to bother changing batteries in the middle of a shoot, then the VGC2EM vertical battery grip is a great choice. It can hold up to two batteries, and is smart enough to deplete one first before using the other one, giving you roughly twice the battery life.
The Multi Interface Hotshoe
The α7 II, just like most modern E-mount cameras, uses Sony’s new Multi Interface hotshoe, meaning flashes and other shoe-mounted accessories from the older A-mount system are not supported. You can still use them with an adapter if you need to, but it’s recommended to go with native Multi Interface flashes and accessories instead.
If you need a flash, Sony’s own offerings are full-featured and excellent, if a bit pricey. Depending on your needs, these are your options:
- Sony HVL-F20M: A small and portable flash with more power than it looks like.
- Sony HVL-F32M: A compact, powerful flash that offers high-speed sync (HSS) both on and off-camera.
- Sony HVL-F43M: A more complete medium-sized flash with on/off-camera HSS. It can also control the power output of several off-camera flashes wirelessly for more complex lighting schemes.
- Sony HVL-F60M: The most powerful and complete flash available for the system.
As you can see, each model builds on the features and power of the previous one, so in this case, you do get what you pay for.
However, if you want to save some money, there are several 3rd-party flashes that will give you most of the same features and even a few extra ones, for a whole lot less cash. Here are a few of our favorite ones:
- Neewer Speedlite MK320: A compact flash that is significantly more powerful than Sony’s entry-level model and comes in at half the price.
- Metz 44 AF-1 Digital: A more affordable alternative to the HVL-F43M flash from Sony, and a great all-around flash with plenty of power.
- Nissin Di700A Flash Kit with Air 1 Commander: One annoying limitation of the Sony flashes is that when used off-camera, they can’t be triggered via radio, only by another on-camera flash. That means if you want to use a Sony flash off-camera, you’ll need to buy at least two of them. Luckily, this flash from Nissin can do what the Sonys can’t, and it even comes with an included radio trigger, giving you everything you need in a neat package that costs way less than the equivalent Sony model. Talk about a win-win.
The Full Frame E-mount System: Lenses
The Full Frame E-mount system is still very young, but Sony has been working non-stop, releasing many excellent pieces of glass in a very short period of time. Today, there are already 11 Sony-made FE lenses, with 6 more coming in early 2016. This doesn’t take into account 3rd-party native FE lenses from Zeiss, Samyang, Mitakon, etc.
All FE lenses made by Sony or Zeiss have fantastic build quality and excellent optical performance, and many 3rd-party ones are almost as good, but considerably more affordable.
If you’re wondering which lenses to buy with your α7 II camera, we can help.
Here’s a list of some autofocus prime lenses we love:
- Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2: A superb, fast wide angle prime lens from Zeiss.
- Sony FE 28mm f/2: The most affordable FE lens from Sony and an excellent value.
- Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar T*: A great, sharp compact prime for everyday use.
- Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 Distagon T*: The fastest first party lens for the FE system and an optical gem with outstanding image quality.
- Sony Zeiss FE 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar T*: Probably the sharpest FE lens and a great standard lens for all-around use. See our own review for more information.
- Zeiss Batis 85mm f/1.8: The best portrait lens for the system with the classic Zeiss look.
- Sony FE 90mm f/2.8 Macro G OSS: A super sharp, macro-capable lens from Sony that doubles as a very good portrait lens.
If you prefer manual focus lenses, these ones are also pretty awesome:
- Zeiss Loxia 35mm f/2 Biogon T*: A great-performing wide-angle lens with unmatched versatility.
- Zeiss Loxia 50mm f/2 Planar T*: Gorgeous standard lens for manual focus lovers.
- Rokinon 50mm f/1.4: A fast and affordable standard lens that is almost as good as the Loxia.
- Mitakon Zhongyi 85mm f/1.2 Speedmaster: A sharp, fast portrait lens that won’t break the bank.
Finally, check out these excellent zoom lenses:
- Sony Zeiss FE 16-35mm f/4 OSS Vario-Tessar T*: Sharp and contrasty wide-angle zoom for travel and landscape photography.
- Sony Zeiss 24-70mm f/4 OSS Vario-Tessar T*: Solid all-around performer and the most versatile lens in the lineup.
- Sony FE 70-200mm f/4 G OSS: A great telephoto lens with impressive sharpness that remains compact.
There are still a few specialty lenses absent from the lineup, like faster f/1.2 and f/1.4 primes, ultra-wide angle and super telephoto zooms, for example, but this is a pretty strong selection already. It’s impressive how far the system has come in just a couple of years, and it doesn’t look like Sony is going to lift the foot off the gas anytime soon.
At this point, the needs of most photographers should be well covered, and for those that need something a bit more special, there’s always the choice to go with adapted lenses instead.
Thanks to the E-mount system’s short flange distance, the α7-series cameras are compatible with a wide range of old SLR and rangefinder lenses via the use of adapters. The huge world of legacy manual lenses from the film era, as well as many superb rangefinder lenses for the Leica M system are just some of the options you have with this camera. No other system out there is as versatile when it comes to using adapted lenses.
If you already own some legacy lenses, or are looking to save some cash by going with adapted manual lenses, you’ll need to get the appropriate adapter first. There are many different models from very different manufacturers, and while most will get the job done, it’s important to choose one that gets the details right in order to avoid issues down the road.
With that in mind, we recommend Fotodiox adapters for your α7 II camera. If you don’t mind paying a little more for something that’s even better made, Metabones adapters are even nicer. You’ll probably find plenty of off-brand cheap adapters as well, but we wouldn’t recommend risking it. In this case, buying cheap can mean buying often, so play it safe and go with a trusted manufacturer instead.
Besides the convenience of using manual lenses, the α7 II is also compatible with DSLR autofocus lenses for the Canon EF and Sony A mounts.
It used to be that autofocus performance was terrible with DSLR lenses, unless you were using the expensive LA-EA4 adapter for the Sony A-mount. However, after the 2.0 firmware update, that is no longer the case. This update introduced the option to use phase-detection autofocus with adapted lenses, which opened up a whole new world of possibilities to α7 II users overnight.
This not only means getting access to lenses that simply don’t exist natively in the E-mount system (yet), but also getting access to similar lenses that offer better performance, a more affordable price, or both.
If you need fast f/2.8 zooms, for example, you can now choose to go with the outstanding-but-pricey Canon L zooms or the almost-as-good-but-quite-cheaper Tamron Di VC zooms. Similarly, if you’re not sold on the super expensive Sony Zeiss FE 35mm f/1.4 Distagon T*, you can now choose to go with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art instead. No matter how you look at it, this is a huge win.
However, it’s not all rosy. One downside is that performance with Canon EF-mount DSLR lenses varies significantly across lenses, and it also depends on the particular adapter you’re using. For that reason, we recommend the Metabones EF-NEX T Mark IV adapter, which can be firmware updated to ensure compatibility with as many Canon lenses as possible. In any case, be sure to check that the lens + adapter combination you’re interested in works correctly with the α7 II before buying. Metabones keeps an updated registry of Canon lenses that have been verified to work here.
A-mount lenses with Sony’s own LA-EA3 adapter should be safe to use, but please note that AF is only available with SSM A-mount lenses, as older screw-based A-mount Minolta lenses are only compatible with the more expensive LA-EA4 adapter.
Finally, the LA-EA4 adapter has its own AF system built in, and the α7 II will default to using that instead of its own PDAF system with it. Again, the α7 II’s native PDAF system is not available with the LA-EA4 adapter, so keep that in mind.
Despite these caveats, however, using adapted lenses with the α7 II is completely viable for everyday use, and performance is more than reasonable in most cases. This makes the α7 II one of the most versatile Full Frame cameras in the world, and an even better value today than when it was announced.
Real World Usage and Image Samples
The α7 II is a joy to use in most everyday situations. Its excellent handling and responsiveness, its snappy autofocus and the super-convenient 5-axis IBIS make it a powerhouse of a camera, and the gorgeous image quality of its 24.3-Megapixel Full Frame sensor is sure to not disappoint even the most discerning users.
When the α7 II is used as intended, it really shines. The EVF is bright and clear, and the camera is always well-behaved. Manual focusing is also a breeze, even with fast lenses, making it well suited for studio photography.
The tilting LCD makes short work of composing your images, and the ability to remotely control the camera and add extra features via the PlayMemories store makes it even more versatile.
Naturally, there are also some aspects that could be improved upon, but they’re fairly minor and don’t detract from the overall experience in a meaningful way.
One such aspect is focus point selection. Instead of having a dedicated control for that, you first need to press a button to enter the focus settings dialog and then proceed to move the focus point around by pressing the arrows on the control wheel. Such a frequently-used function could really use a shortcut, for example.
Luckily, thanks to the built-in subject tracking and eye detection technology, the α7 II is smart enough to figure out the best focusing point in about 80% of cases. That’s not bad at all, but for the remaining 20% of cases, changing the focus point manually is still harder than it should.
Another point of friction is the poorly-made memory card door. It just feels cheap and not nearly as solid as the rest of the camera’s body. To make matters worse, it’s quite awkwardly placed on the right side of the camera, precisely where the palm of your hand rests when you’re holding it. For that reason, it’s pretty easy to accidentally open the door by simply grabbing the camera. This can be quite maddening when it happens — and unfortunately, it does happen.
Now, as far as mirrorless cameras have come in recent years, DSLRs continue to offer tougher weather sealing, more resistant bodies, faster and more accurate focus tracking, and redundant data storage. For everything action-related, these are still the type of cameras to get, but the gap is closing fast.
Similarly, if you plan on using it for astrophotography and other situations where extreme low-light sensitivity is required, the α7S II will be a much better choice. And of course, if you need to print large or need extensive cropping ability, a high-resolution body like the α7R II is what you’re looking for.
The α7 II does not excel at any of those things, but it’s not terrible at them, either. It is, by definition, a camera optimized for all-around use and as such, it may struggle a bit in niche applications like the aforementioned ones.
The α7 II hits a very good spot between features, convenience, size, weight, image quality, versatility, and affordability. Unless you have very specific needs that only specialized gear can serve, it really doesn’t get much better than this.
Room for Improvement
The α7 II is a great camera, but as you’ve seen throughout this review, it’s far from perfect. While it righted many of the wrongs of the original α7, there are still plenty of things here that could use some attention from Sony. With that in mind, here are a few possible enhancements we would like to see in a future α7 Mark III. In no particular order:
Dual SD-card slots and a more solid memory card door.
Tougher weather sealing.
A more ergonomic grip.
Better battery life.
Better High-ISO performance and wider dynamic range.
Faster buffer clearance speeds.
Lossless compression for RAW files.
Better IBIS performance.
A better mobile app.
Focus-point selection shortcuts.
More built-in features like time-lapse.
More high-quality and fast FE lenses.
That looks like a long list, but the truth is, even though there’s clearly some room for improvement here and there, the α7 II already performs pretty decently in many of these areas. The bottom point is, don’t let this laundry list of complaints dissuade you from buying the α7 II, because it is a truly fantastic camera.
The α7 II is a wonderfully versatile camera that puts Full Frame image quality within anyone’s reach, and that alone is a worthy achievement. The days when these cameras were so expensive that only full-time professional photographers could afford to buy one are over, and we’re all better off for it.
What the α7 II represents, therefore, is the beginning of a new era. Sensor technology appears to have reached a good-enough state, and companies are increasingly trying to differentiate themselves by competing on other fronts. In that sense, mirrorless technology represents a way forward for companies that have been trying to break Canon and Nikon’s dominance in the market for years.
Sony appears poised to take down these two giants, and they’re certainly sparing no expense to compete on equal terms with them. Unless Canon and Nikon embrace mirrorless going forward, they may end up being slowly but surely left behind by the rest of the industry. The advantages of DSLRs over mirrorless cameras are diminishing by the day, and every year fewer people need a DSLR to get their job done.
The original Sony α7 was an ambitious product, but it was limited in several crucial ways. The α7 II takes a bold idea and refines it with equal measures of substance and style. If the Full Frame E-mount system continues to evolve at the same breakneck pace it’s kept so far, the future of mirrorless cameras appears decidedly bright.
In the meantime, however, there’s plenty to enjoy in the present.